Irish workers occupy Waterford glass factory
By Martha Grevatt
Several hundred Irish workers have occupied the world famous Waterford Crystal glass factory. The sit-down began Jan. 30 when the shop stewards in the plant learned that it would close and 480 of the 650 workers would be immediately out of a job.
Waterford Crystal factory workers
occupy the plant at Kilbarry.
After they saw guards locking gates, members of the UNITE union fought their way past security guards and broke windows to gain control of the factory and tourist center. David Carson of Deloitte and Touche, the appointed receiver of the company, had just hired extra guards. Carson was put in charge when the parent firm Wedgwood Waterford, awash in debt, could buy no more time from creditors, principally Bank of America.
Bank of America had also helped provoke a sit-in at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago in December by refusing to loan the company money needed to keep the plant open. The struggle there, led by United Electrical Workers Local 1110, ended when workers won the severance pay, vacation pay and health benefits they were legally entitled to. In 2007, sit-downs in Canada and Australia won similar victories following sudden plant shutdowns.
Waterford workers led the demonstration
of 120,000 workers in Dubin Feb. 21.
The Waterford workers, however, demand more than severance compensation. They are refusing to leave until the decision to close the plant is reversed.
The day following the beginning of the occupation a solidarity rally outside the plant drew 2,000 people. Later the Waterford Council of Trade Unions held a march on the plant of 9,000. The population of Waterford and surrounding suburbs in Munster Province is less than 50,000. A Feb. 6 editorial in the Munster Express explained that closing the plant and visitor center, which draws 300,000 tourists a year, “would tear the heart out of the city.”
Local shops and restaurants are supplying food and beverages to the workers inside. Sympathizers have donated blankets and sleeping bags for workers who have now been inside over two weeks.
Letters of support are pouring in. Rallies are taking place in both the Republic of Ireland and the British-occupied six counties in the north, as well as other countries, including New Zealand.
On Feb. 5 the workers took their message to Dublin, the capital of Ireland. They occupied the lobby of Deloitte, chanting, “The workers united will never be defeated!” and only left after they were granted a meeting with key company executives.
At least 100 workers occupy the visitor center at any given time. Cafeteria blackboards now read “Carson Pie—Warning: Contains Bullshit—Union Advises Members To Stay Clear” and “Today’s Soup: Receivers Broth. Warning: Contains Lies, False Promises, plus Croutons of Insincerity. Workers Unite.” Visitors can still tour the plant with a sit-downer tour guide.
Resurgent workers’ struggle
The flag known as the Starry Plough is now flying over the plant. During the 1916 Easter Rising against British colonialism the Irish Citizen Army carried this flag, which was the brainchild of the martyred socialist and nationalist James Connolly. It symbolized the idea that a free Ireland would control its destiny “from the plough to the stars.”
This year marks the hundred-year anniversary of the founding of the Irish Transport and General Workers (now Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union), which Connolly helped found with Jim Larkin. Larkin coined the phrase “An injury to one is the concern of all,” which evolved into the more familiar “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
The Waterford sit-down demonstrates that the Irish labor movement, which has a proud tradition of struggle against both capitalist exploitation and British colonialism, is seeing a resurgence. The Irish Council of Trade Unions has called for major demonstrations beginning Feb. 21 in response to government attacks on workers’ pensions. The Sinn Fein Weekly An Phoblacht (The People) reported that “SIPTU General President Jack O’Connor warned that industrial action on ‘a very dramatic scale’ was a real possibility. O’Connor said widespread action rather than a simple ‘walk around town’ would be needed to defeat ‘an attack on workers across the economy.’”
Sinn Fein has strongly supported the sit-down. Arthur Morgan, the party’s national spokesperson on Trade, Enterprise and Employment, visited the workers. At a meeting of the Waterford City Council, Sinn Fein Council member Joe Kelly was loudly applauded when he called on the Irish government to nationalize the factory. Kelly is also a shop steward who has 36 years in the plant.
Independent Council member Mary Roche added, “We must stand up and refuse to accept the old rules; damn the rules and damn the Bank of America.” (Munster Express, Feb. 13)
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